On the Record: Georgetown and the racial identity of President Patrick Healy

Matt Sheptuck (COL ’10) is an American Studies major writing his senior thesis, which explores how Georgetown University has perceived Jesuit Father Patrick Healy’s racial identity over the years. In his research Sheptuck found that Healy, whom many of us know as the first African-American President of Georgetown and one of the first black presidents of any major American university, was understood as white for much of the University’s history, until beginning in the 1960s, when Georgetown began to “market” Healy as black.

Sheptuck says he isn’t “overtly condemnatory” of the University’s history, knowing that how they framed Healy was a product of the times. But he proposes that going forward, Georgetown doesn’t need to relegate Healy’s racial identity to the “one-dimensional” white or black designation, and should present him as the complex man he was. He also thinks Georgetown needs to look closely at its relationship with race in America in the past. Intrigued by his research, Vox caught up with Sheptuck on Tuesday to learn more.

Vox Populi: So tell me a little about your thesis.

Matt Sheptuck: I’m looking at how the University’s changing racial conceptualization of Patrick Healy’s identity fit in relation to how the University thought about race in general. And what I’ve found in my research about Healy, who was president from 1874 – 1882, is two main periods from the 1880s, when Healy resigned as president, up to the present, in which the University talked about his racial identity differently.

From the 1880s to the 1950s … the University failed to try to mention Patrick Healy’s African-American identity or birth to a slave mother at all in that period.

VP: Let’s back up a little. What is known about Healy’s heritage?

MS: Certainly. Patrick Healy was born to a slave mother of part African and part European ancestry. She probably had very little African ancestry, but according to the ‘one drop rule’ of the times, Patrick was black. His father was an Irish immigrant …. But since being a slave was [based on one’s] mother, according to the confines of American society at the time, Healy was [legally] classified as a black and a slave.

Patrick Healy never lived the life of a slave. None of [Michael Healy’s] children did. They were all raised as free. Healy entered the Jesuits in 1850, and this became sort of symbolic of his passing as a white.

(Michael Healy purchased Patrick’s mother as a slave before marrying her. Read more on Patrick Healy’s parents)

VP: So you were talking about the first period.

MS: Right. The University de-emphasized his black heritage. In all the public writings I could find about Healy, there was no mention of his black ancestry. As a result, the implicit understanding, for most people, of Healy is that he was white.

VP: Who knew for sure about Healy’s ancestry?

MS: The things is, University officials were. President Coleman Nevils, who was President in the 1930s, he knew of Healy’s African ancestry. But he didn’t write about it. As for others, it’s hard to tell. The administrations and the Jesuits here were definitely aware of it …. I don’t know how knowledgeable students were. I don’t know whether it was a concerted effort. But that aspect of Healy’s identity was swept under the rug.

VP: So what changed?

MS: In the 1960s and the 1970s, the University began explicitly marketing Healy as a black American. Part of that was in reaction to the successes of the Civil Rights movement, and rising trends in diversity initiatives across the country. For the 1973 – 1974 centennial celebration of Healy’s presidency, President [Robert] Henle … established a steering community and they hosted a number of events that clearly put him in the context of a black American.

A pamphlet went out, “Patrick Healy, SJ, A Black Man’s Dream Come True.” Georgetown urged articles in local black newspapers about Healy. They invited prominent black speakers to campus, although I don’t know if they were successful. I studied the minutes of the steering committee’s meetings. You can certainly see an effort to freeze him in that image, as a black American. It was a point of pride for the University at a time when it wanted to mold its image as a racially diverse campus.

So I kind of put that changing racial conception in contrast with who Healy really was, and that’s the image of a very complex man. I think it’s improper to assign him this either-or notion of race. I’m trying to transcend a one-dimensional conception of a very complex man. Because we don’t attribute racial categorization according to the one-drop rule anymore. It’s self-identification.

VP: Is there evidence of how Healy self-identified?

MS: He racially identified as white, because he was line with American society at that time. His identity was an upper-middle-class, white Catholic, was a Jesuit priest. [I’ve read some of his diaries and] he clearly saw African-Americans as the racial ‘others.’

But that identity was adopted under constrained social confines. If Healy was alive today, we have no idea how he would identify.

VP: So when the University talks about him today, do they racially identify him?

MS: Yeah, they still do identify him as black. If you look at the Patrick Healy fellows program, for example, it’s a program based off of diversity issues. And one of the requirements if you want to apply for this program is you must be interested in issues affecting people of color. If you do searches in the website, the main webpage for John Carroll Weekend, which is coming up soon, still proclaims Healy as the first black president of a major American university. And I’m trying to say, you don’t have to put him in either one category or another.

One thing I think the University ought to pursue is an overall study of Georegtown’s involvement in race relations and racial history. I hope that this will prompt the Unviersty to undertake a greater study of its relationship to race, like the University of Maryland … and other universities have done. Sometimes, in some cases, it’s negative, in some it’s positive.

This post originally stated that Nevils was president in the 1940s. He was president of Georgetown in the 1930s. It also misquoted Sheptuck as saying that Healy’s mother was black according to the ‘one drop rule.’ Sheptuck was referring to Patrick Healy, not his mother.

7 Comments on “On the Record: Georgetown and the racial identity of President Patrick Healy

  1. Hear, hear.

    This is the very point that D. Pierce Nixon made in a column a few years back, in the larger context that trying to classify Healy as ‘white’ or ‘black’ was doing him an injustice. As Nixon points out, “while Fr. Healy did many great things for the Georgetown community, he did not play an active, personal role in breaking down racial barriers and bringing people together. The sad result of this has been that Georgetown remained for several years — and continues to remain — a place where ignorance and bigotry prevent groups of differing backgrounds from truly understanding one another and working together as equals. The view of Healy as the university’s first “black” president provides a convenient alibi for a school that still lacks adequate resources and advocacy for students with heritages outside the wealthy, “white” mainstream.”

    See: http://www.thehoya.com/opinion/stay-true-to-healy-legacy/

    Of course, for this column, he was castigated and accused of racism. . . .

  2. Disagree. Where D. Pierce Nixon was obsessed with proving Healy’s blackness was totally made up, Sheptuck is saying that both narratives, Healy is white, and Healy is black, are not the whole truth. Nixon was saying race doesn’t matter, which, if your University is hiding part of your race, it does. Sheptuck is saying that race and the University’s history with race does matter, which is why he wants the University to keep studying and talking about its relationship with race, but that race doesn’t have to be black and white.

    From D. Pierce Nixon:

    “In fact, we are wrong to call Healy a black president at all. He wouldn’t have.”

    “The remarkable part of the Healy story is that race didn’t really matter to him, and it shouldn’t matter to us.”
    Nixon totally ignores that Healy pretty much had to be white. From Sheptuck:

    “But that identity was adopted under constrained social confines. If Healy was alive today, we have no idea how he would identify.”

    Also, I’m pretty sure this might have had something to do with Nixon’s castigation:


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  4. “Anyone who knows me well enough to have had conversations with me about things like this knows that I think that the concept of race is a stupid, dehumanizing method of classifying people into artificial groups for the purpose of discrimination.


    . . .

    Anyone who takes a position on issues of race presupposes that there is a qualitative difference between the actions, beliefs and values of people from groups of different colors.

    That’s dumb.”

    Yeah, what a racist! Nixon was right then, and he’s right now. That being said, Sheptuck is obviously devoting more time and pages to Fr. Healy, and it seems like he’s getting a really quality piece of work out of it.

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  6. I don’t think Nixon was saying that. It seemed to me that his point was that Healy should get the credit for having had the courage to be a black president, but Georgetown is pretending to have been a LOT more tolerant that it really was. He hid that because he knew Georgetown wouldn’t have allowed a black president at the time. Celebrating Healy as the first black president implies that Georgetown was tolerant when it fact it wasn’t.

  7. It should be noted that Patrick Healy was an alumnus of Holy Cross, and that his brother was also an HC alum who was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of African American ancestry.

    We Holy Cross alums like to point out that that Georgetown’s landmark campus building is named for a Holy Cross alumnus!

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